In a rare sight, the Santa Ana City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to oppose the establishment of a needle-exchange program initiated and run by Harm Reduction Institute.

The Council wasn’t alone in rejecting the proposal.

Dozens of residents voiced their concerns during public comments and submitted a few petitions signed by residents within some neighborhood associations. One topped 1,200 signatures.

According to Mayor Valerie Amezcua, the City has support from several surrounding cities and their representatives, along with Orange County Board Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento, Assemblymember Avelino Valencia, Senator Tom Umberg, and Congressman Lou Correa.

Moreover, local law enforcement agencies, firefighter authorities, and labor unions have also signed their support in opposing the program.

The idea of a needle-exchange program has been under heavy scrutiny by locals after a similar program distributed needles to drug users and were discarded in public spaces such as libraries and parks.

The point of the program is to reduce and contain the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other diseases by distributing clean needles to users than for them to reuse, share, or inject with old ones, which could further spread disease.

Discussion of Agenda Item #27 during the Santa Ana City Council Meeting on April 16, 2024. Credit: City of Santa Ana YouTube Channel (Starts at 4:58:06).

In information provided by Homeless Services Division Manager Ken Gominsky Jr. on Tuesday's meeting, HRI set up shop on Fourth Street in 2022 and was found operating without a business license or certificate of occupancy, to which Code Enforcement shut them down.

Timeline (According to the City)

  • 2011 - California Health and Safety Code 121349 is signed into law, which allows the State Department of Public Health (CDPH) to authorize entities to provide hypodermic needle and syringe exchange programs in any location the CDPH determines that conditions exist for the rapid spread of disease
  • February 2016 - Orange County Needle Exchange Program (OCNEP) opens a needle distribution program at the Orange County Civic Center in Santa Ana. This resulted in thousands of used needles and syringes being discarded in public areas, including the Civic Center, neighborhoods, businesses, the library, and the Santa Ana Senior Center.
  • Early 2018 - OCNEP closes its needle distribution program in Santa Ana.
  • 2018 – Health and Safety Code 121349 is amended to expand the scope of materials that needle programs may distribute.
  • August 6, 2018 - The City of Santa Ana is informed that the CDPH Office of AIDS has approved OCNEP to provide a mobile needle distribution in Orange County. The authorization to operate in Santa Ana, Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange is granted over strong objections from the City of Santa Ana, the County and other cities.
  • November 2018 - A San Diego County Superior Court judge issues a preliminary injunction blocking OCNEP's mobile needle-exchange service from operating.
  • October 2019 - The court rules that OCNEP's proposed mobile syringe exchange program cannot operate in Orange County because the state should have reviewed the proposed syringe exchange’s potential environmental impact first. As part of that ruling, the Court found that OCNEP could not account for approximately 250,000 needles provided by OCNEP but never collected.
  • 2020 – Health and Safety Code 121349 is amended to allow possession of a syringe without a prescription.
  • October 6, 2020 - Santa Ana City Council approves ordinance prohibiting syringe exchange programs (later pre-empted by State law.)
  • 2022 – Health and Safety Code 121349 is amended to no longer require California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review of environmental impacts from proposed needle distribution programs.
  • January 5, 2023 - Harm Reduction Institute (HRI) files an application with CDPH to operate a needle distribution program in Santa Ana.
  • May 19, 2023 - The City of Santa Ana sends a public comment letter to CDPH officially opposing HRI's proposed needle program.
  • August 11, 2023 - CDPH sends a letter to City of Santa Ana informing the City that it has authorized HRI's needle distribution program.
  • August 2023 - The City of Santa Ana and the County of Orange continue to voice opposition to and concerns about the needle distribution program, with letters from the City Manager, Police Chief, City Councilmembers and the Orange County Health Officer.
  • August 30, 2023 - CDPH rescinds its decision to authorize HRI's needle program in Santa Ana to allow further engagement with the City, in response to the City's continued opposition efforts.
  • December 20, 2023 - HRI files a new application with CDPH to operate a mobile needle distribution program in Santa Ana.
  • December 22, 2023 - CDPH emails the City of Santa Ana City Attorney's Office an "Invitation to Consult on Syringe Services Authorization."
  • January 9, 2024 - The City of Santa Ana responds to CDPH's invitation, seeking more "robust and meaningful consultation" than CDPH is offering.

This information was sourced from the City of Santa Ana.

Thereafter, HRI filed with the California Department of Public Health to conduct a mobile needle-exchange program in Santa Ana and subsequently approved.

Since legislation requires an entity to engage in meaningful dialogue with the host city, the CDPH revoked its clearance after the City‘s legal team discovered HRI had not done so.

HRI filed again in December 2023, with the same intention of a mobile-style needle-exchange program.

In the application, their data is derived from the Orange County Health Care Agency, which indicated 259 people were diagnosed with HIV in 2022.

But of those 259 individuals, 17 were infected by using injection drug use whereas nearly 86% were diagnosed because of sexual contact.

The City accuses HRI of misleading the public on the numbers, to which they deny the accusal.

The Road Ahead

  1. California Department of Public Health will meet with Santa Ana elected officials and City Hall staff to discuss the matter (Dates not established yet).
  2. In between these meetings, HRI has to make meaningful consultation and also meet with residents and leaders in order for their application to legally be approved.
  3. Residents will be allowed to speak their mind and submit a comment during a 45-day window to the CDPH (Not yet established).

“We do not need HRI coming here and dropping 300,000 needles in our community and only picking up 180[,000] ‘they think’, and leaving 120[,000] in our community,” said Amezcua.

HRI’s needle service will allow for ‘clients’ to request needles at a place they call home, sometimes not at a traditional house or apartment according to the application.

Councilmember Jonathan Ryan Hernandez understood the intent to reduce the ongoing struggles drug users and homeless endure, but agreed with the Council that the program won’t do enough to address the issue.

Sample letters were created by City staff for residents to use to send to local leaders to further oppose the program according to Acting City Manager Alvaro Nuñez.

Executive Director of Harm Reduction Institute Carol Newark tweeted in 2023 that the organization will continue to push forward because they are “more relentless than our enemies.”

David Penaloza fired back.

“Well if protecting my residents, our parks, our neighborhoods, and our kids, makes me an enemy, then I am your worst nightmare,” said Penaloza.

Mayor Pro Temp Thai Viet Phan looked at the data and pointed to the higher HIV infection rate due to sexual contact and proposed more sexual education than initiating a needle program for 17 individuals countywide.

“I’d love for them to show us how they’re getting to the public safety numbers, who’s their expert on their staff who’s going to tell us that they know Santa Ana public safety issues better than our residents and our staff members and the members of this council,” said Mayor Pro Temp Phan.

Newark said the organization takes the issue seriously and is committed to increasing access to proper syringe disposal in the community.

For future meetings regarding needle-exchange program hosted by the city or otherwise, click here.

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